In a recent NY Times Magazine, Mark Bittman (aka the Minimalist) waxes enthusiastic on the potential of online grocery shopping:
That’s why, to focus on things that could happen in our lifetimes, we should take a look at improving online grocery shopping. The one time I tried shopping online I was sent a free watermelon — how does that happen? — but that didn’t make up for the even-less-than-supermarket quality of the food. This is my fantasy about virtual grocery shopping: that you could ask and be told the provenance and ingredients of any product you look at in your Web browser. You could specify, for example, “wild, never-frozen seafood” or “organic, local broccoli.”
You could also immortalize your preferences (“Never show me anything whose carbon footprint is bigger than that of my car”; “Show me no animals raised in cages”; “Don’t show me vegetables grown more than a thousand miles from my home”), along with any and all of your cooking quirks (“When I buy chicken, ask me if I want rosemary”). You would receive, if you wanted, an e-mail message when shipments of your favorite foods arrived at the store or went on sale; you could get recipe ideas, serving suggestions, shopping lists, nutritional information and cooking videos. If poor-quality food arrived — yellowing broccoli, stinky fish, whatever — you would receive store credit without any hassle.
While those would all be nice benefits – don’t get me started on industrial meat production, because I turn into a self-righteous bore – I think the most important improvement triggered by online supermarket shopping would be a reduction in impulse purchases. By now, you are probably all tired of hearing about Walter Mischel and his marshmallow experiments. To summarize, Mischel tested the self-control of young children by asking them to not eat a marshmallow sitting right in front of them. Not surprisingly, most kids had a tough time waiting, with an average delay time under three minutes. They’d look at the yummy marshmallow, a pillowy sphere of sugar and corn starch, and their weak willpower muscles would wilt.
But there was one simple way to dramatically enhance the self-control of four-year olds: Instead of giving them an actual marshmallow, show them a picture of a marshmallow. Although the practical consequences were the same – if they picked up the picture, they could get a tasty treat right away – the presence of the photograph was much less alluring, a much “cooler” stimulus. The end result is that most kids didn’t have trouble resisting the reward. (You can also teach kids to draw an imaginary picture frame around a real marshmallow, a cognitive trick that also enhanced willpower.)
What does this have to do with online grocery shopping? When we shop in a supermarket in person, we are confronted with an endless supply of “hot” stimuli, the shelves full of temptations. Maybe it’s Haagan-Dazs ice cream, or all those different kinds of potato chips. Perhaps our weakness is dark chocolate or Snickers or sour gummy bears. The point is that everyone has a favorite food, and seeing that food right in front of us makes it much harder to delay gratification.
Like those four-year olds, however, we can ignore that pint of Haagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche when we’re only looking at a picture of it. The stimulus has been cooled off by the online shopping experience – it’s an abstraction, a mere image – which allows us to make more responsible shopping decisions. The same logic also applies to non-food impulse purchases, from cashmere sweaters to electronics. (This suggests that whenever we feel our self-control slipping away we should leave the store immediately and go shopping online. If we still want to buy the sweater on our computer, then maybe it really is a good deal.)
So here’s a research proposal: someone should do a carefully controlled study looking at how our online supermarket decisions differ from our in person supermarket decisions. I’d bet that we make healthier choices when those tasty snacks are just photographs, shrunken to fit our computer screen.